VATICAN CITY – Although he served as pope for less than five years, Blessed John XXIII left one of the most lasting legacies in the Catholic Church's history by convening the Second Vatican Council.
A plump, elderly, smiling Italian of peasant origins, the future pope had an illustrious career as a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, Turkey and postwar France.
He became pope amid the dismantling of colonialism, the rise of the Cold War and on the cusp of a technological transformation unlike anything seen since the Industrial Revolution.
Citing the Holy Spirit as his source of inspiration, he called the Second Vatican Council to help the Church confront the rapid changes and mounting challenges unfolding in the world – and, by inviting non-Catholics to the council, to work toward Christian unity.
As pope from 1958 to 1963, Blessed John launched an extensive renewal of the Church when he convoked the council, which set in motion major reforms with regard to the Church and its structure, the liturgy and ecumenism.
He produced a number of historic encyclicals, including Mater et Magistra on Christian social doctrine and Pacem in Terris, issued in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, on the need for global peace and justice.
Before he was elected pope, he served as a Vatican diplomat. His work in Bulgaria and Turkey put the future pope in close contact with Eastern Orthodox Christians. The contacts inspired him as pope to try to restore Church unity.
With his humility, gentleness and active courage, he reached out like the Good Shepherd to the marginalized and the world, visiting the imprisoned and the sick, and welcoming people from every nation and faith.
He visited many parishes in Rome, especially in the city's growing suburbs. His contact with the people and his open display of personal warmth, sensitivity and fatherly kindness earned him the nickname, "the Good Pope."
Blessed John brought a humble yet charismatic, personal style to papacy. He placed great importance on his modest upbringing in a village about 40 km northeast of Milan, saying: "I come from the country, from poverty" that he said was "happy and blessed poverty – not cursed, not endured."
Born in Sotto il Monte, Italy, in 1881, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was one of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 1904 and, after several years as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo, he was called to the Vatican. In 1925 he began serving as a Vatican diplomat, first posted to Bulgaria, then to Greece and Turkey and, finally, to France. He was named a cardinal and patriarch of Venice in 1953.
Roncalli was elected pope Oct. 28, 1958. He died of cancer June 3, 1963.
Blessed John was beatified in 2000, by Blessed John Paul II, with whom he will be canonized April 27.